When I was a kid, one of my favorite haunts was the University of Tennessee’s Frank H. McClung Museum. My dad and I usually found some excuse to stop by whenever we were in Knoxville so I could check out the fossils.
Back in those days, one of the smaller exhibits was a display on Knoxville in the Civil War. It was in a tiny room next to a specimen storage area, with a potent smell of formaldehyde in the air.
The McClung has changed a lot in recent years, upgrading its core exhibits and bringing in some first-rate traveling shows. The new galleries on Tennessee paleontology, southeastern Native Americans, and human origins are on a par with any museum in the country. It was exciting to see all this going on, especially as someone who’d been visiting for years. So when the museum unveiled an updated Civil War exhibit back in 2007, I determined to get down there and see it as soon as possible.
For various reasons, though, I never did. Circumstances would always get in the way. (I’d be in Knoxville but remember the exhibit too late to get to the museum, I’d be on campus but run short on time, etc.)
A few weeks ago I had to run to UT on an errand, so I was determined to hit the McClung, forty-five-minute parking permit be darned. I hoofed it over to the museum, pored over the new exhibit, absolutely loved it, and made a note to recommend it to all of you fine people.
Then I forgot to do so. (They say your short-term memory is the first thing that goes.)
So allow me to extend my deepest apologies, and to partially redeem myself by directing your attention to the museum’s website about the exhibit.
This display is a fine piece of historical interpretation, one that packs a lot of information into a confined space with clarity of presentation and elegance of design. The 1863 Confederate siege of the city and attack on Fort Sanders take center stage, but it covers the wartime political divisions in East Tennessee and the way Knoxvillians remembered the war, too. We’ve come a long way from the days when the Civil War Knoxville display consisted of a few artifact cases and photographs tucked away in a back room.
A few features deserve special mention. There’s a nice cross-section of armaments and accoutrements on display, along with archaeological material and some archival pieces. One of the things that I really enjoyed was an interactive, 3-D map of the siege, where the major positions and other key locations lit up with the push of a few buttons. The exhibit also includes a video with computer renderings of the fortifications and surrounding terrain, alongside footage of the same area as it appears now. I’m very familiar with Knoxville, but seeing all this really helped me get my head around the geography of the siege in a way that it had never been before.
The museum is also screening a documentary on Fort Sanders, shot in and around a full-scale replica of the earthwork. This modern-day fort proved so impressive that it’s still used in reenactments of the assault.
So there’s my belated endorsement. See this exhibit. It’s well worth the hassle of trying to park at UT.